Wednesday, November 12, 2008


This is a review I wrote, for the Amazon website of Ashvaghosha's Saundarananda (Handsome Nanda), translated by Linda Covill and published by Clay Sanskrit Library.

For anybody who would like to know the original teaching of the Buddha's four noble truths, as it was preserved through twelve generations in India, here it is, straight from the horse's mouth, in Sanskrit and in English.

The teaching of the four truths first appears, in a nutshell, in the third of this book's eighteen cantos:

"This is suffering, this is the network of causes producing it, this is its pacification, this is the means." [3.10]

How great it is for the reader to be enabled not just to take the translator's word for it, but to check for himself with the Sanskrit on the facing page, and thereby know that the original words with which Ashvaghosha expressed the second noble truth were SAMUDAYA-LATA PRAVARTIKA. The dictionary tells us that SAMUDAYA means "combination" or "aggregate," that LATA originally means "creeper," and that PRAVARTIKA means "setting in motion" or "producing."

Aha! So the Master seems to be describing that which sets suffering in motion as a network of faults, a tangled skein, a many-tentacled monster of misuse.

Seeking to extricate Nanda from this tangled skein, the Buddha acts craftily: first he lures his younger brother away physically from the comforts of home, and then, to help release Nanda's mind from the continuing pull of his wife's sensual charms, the Buddha conjures up a bevy of truly heart-stopping heavenly stunners, in comparison with whom Mrs Nanda suddenly seems less sexually appealing than a one-eyed monkey!

The story of Handsome Nanda's path to liberation progresses through cantos dwelling on the joy he finds in faith (SHRADDHA), and the merit he acquires by binding on the armour of mindfulness (SMRTI). The primacy of integrity / self-restraint (SHILA) is emphasized, as is the need for heroic endeavor (VIRYA) in the fight against the foe-like faults. Then, in the final three cantos, we are given a detailed exposition of the four noble truths themselves, together with an account of Nanda's ultimate success in penetrating them.

Along the way, Ashvaghosha, who holds liberation to be paramount, is relentless and remorseless in tearing apart any fanciful notion that may present an obstacle to the reader's own progress along the path towards liberation. These efforts to rid us of sentimental conceptions and thoughtless assumptions about our own health and immortality are particularly concentrated in Canto 15, titled Abandoning Notions. Thus, "In this world, by nature separate, nobody is truly dear to anybody... Nowhere is happiness found... Where this body goes, it is followed by sorrow... Expectations of well-being or continuing life do not occur to a truly seeing man as he drags around his body, that field of misfortunes."

Is this all too pessimistic for one who has taken the Mahayana vow of a bodhisattva? I think not. Ashvaghosha has gone far, far beyond the optimism and pessimism of philosophers of the large and small vehicles. Ashvaghosha is just telling us, as the Buddha taught it, the bitter truth.

The bitter pill is sweetened with many evocative, memorable, sometimes surprising, and sometimes humorous images:

"A glance at Sundari, her waist compact between her swelling breasts and thighs like a golden fissure in a mountain, could no more satisfy Nanda than drinking water with one hand. Reverence for the Buddha drew him on, love for his wife drew him back again. He hesitated, neither going or staying, like a king-goose pushing forward against the waves." [4.40]

"Even yogic practice can lead to failure, not success, if practiced at the wrong time or in the wrong way. A man milking a cow at the wrong time, when her calf is not yet born, will get no milk; and even at the right time, he would get no milk if, in ignorance, he were to milk her by the horn." [16.50]

"Just as a man weary of excessive love-making will, for example, go for a brisk walk, so should the wise man proceed in relation to the faults." [16.80]

As her introduction demonstrates, as also do the above excerpts, Linda Covill herself has got a very nice way with words, and she translates very unobtrusively, in a way that never draws attention to herself as a translator. I like her approach very much. She uses one or two terms that strike this reader as dubious, or at least that offend his prejudices: "meditational technique," which seems to be a translation of NIMITTAM, is the prime example. Relying on conventional terms like "the four foundations of mindfulness," may be regarded as a fudge, or a virtue, depending on one's point of view. It may be a bit of both, on the one hand reflecting the difficulty of coming up with a new, more literal and yet still meaningful translation of SMRTY-UPASTHANA, and on the other hand reflecting the same modesty of approach by which Linda Covill generally stays out of the way and allows Ashvaghosha's brilliance to shine through.

Oft-recurring metaphors are part of that brilliance. They speak to the reader's soul more deeply than any amount of dry philosophy possibly could.

The fathomless sea of hypocrisy, greed, malice and other faults (DOSHA) is introduced as such in the third canto:

"The seer had passed over the fathomless sea of faults -- which is watered by conditioned existence, which has anxious thoughts for fish, and which is disturbed by waves of anger, desire and fear -- and he carried the world across too." [3.10]

Thereafter the faults, are variously portrayed as snakes (DOSHA-VYALAN is intriguingly translated as "reptilian faults" [14.30], causing this reader to come back to the question of how deeply rooted the nexus of faults might be in brain physiology and body chemistry); as symptoms of a disease to be cured; as enemies to be defeated in battle; and as impurities to be removed from gold.

Appropriately indeed does Ashvaghosha finish his epic poem with the words UPAKARAM CAMIKARAM, "serviceable gold":

"Seeing that the world generally holds the pleasure of sensory experience uppermost and is resistant to liberation, I, holding liberation to be paramount, have described the truth in the guise of poetry. Knowing this, that part which relates to peace should be carefully extracted from it, not the entertaining part; serviceable gold necessarily comes from ore-born dust."

Since obtaining a few weeks ago this handily pocket-sized volume, together with its companion volume in the Clay Sanskrit Library "The Life of the Buddha," this reviewer seems constantly to have been carrying around one book or the other. Both books are hard to put down. This one has the added virtue of being from a Sanskrit text which is complete. The words of the noble Ashvaghosha are conspicuously clear and unambiguous, his whole poem has a coherence to it, and he speaks to the English speaker very really -- as if there were no cultural filter. Certainly, there is no Chinese Confucian influence here, and nothing Japanese either.

A friend and fellow Ashvaghosha fan commented on this book, "To my eyes it's not shrouded in mysticism; it seems to go straight to the heart." I agree. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Reading it makes the reader want to start afresh and dig deeper, so that, notwithstanding this fathomless tangle of faults and fanciful notions that causes suffering, the Buddha's teaching might be caused to yield up, again, its true gold.


Jordan said...

Hi Mike, It might be expedient, helpful, and wise for you to place a link up to the Amazon page. In that way folks could just click and go directly to the page. And in that way they will see the article, and in that way they may be influenced to read the book for themselves, and in that way they may become more helpful and wise to others.

I really dig your review BTW.

Take care,

Mike Cross said...

Hi Jordan,

Tried. Failed. Gave up.

A waste of ten valuable minutes.

It might have been expedient, helpful and wise of you not only to point me to the end but also to offer some guidance as regards the proper means.

Take care,


Jordan said...

Hi Mike, Click this

It should be helpful.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks Jordan.

Harry said...

Cheers for this, Mike.

I just found it for 11 quid at

Please print this message lest people think I don't post here any more because you don't call me 'venerable'.

Regards to you & yours,

Reverend Father Venerable Newt.

Harry said...

ps. I can't see your review on Amazon?


Mike Cross said...

I am glad you ordered the book, Harry.

Checking the Amazon guidelines, I guess my review was too long (over 1000 words). I will shorten it and try again.